My phone started buzzing just before 11:30 AM. I was in a meeting where we'd all agreed to turn off our phones, and I was annoyedly sure it was the phone of the man sitting behind me. However, the phone I thought I'd silenced buzzed. And buzzed and buzzed. Finally I picked it up: 3 missed calls from Petra, 3 missed calls from my dear one, S.
As I looked at the urgent pattern of the calls the phone buzzed again, and I flipped it open, to answer the 4th call from Petra.
"Mom, where have you been?"
"I'm sorry honey, I was in a meeting. Are you ok?"
"Well, the school is in lockdown."
By now the other attendees of the meeting were standing, puzzled looks on their faces, listening in.
"The school's on lockdown?" I repeated, not really getting it.
"There have been some shootings at the American Civic Association."
"The Civic Center? You mean the Arena?"
"No, the Civic Association. On Front Street."
"Oh," I said, and then I thought, the place with the annual garlic festival.
"Yeah, there's someone in there and he's holding people hostage, and people might be dead already."
Each nugget of information she imparted, I repeated, and the people in front of me gasped, and one by one began to reach for their own cell phones, calling whomever they needed to call.
As we walked out of the church, each of us in our own world with whomever we needed to communicate with, I saw the pastor and the receptionist staring at a computer screen together in the office.
Petra told me what she knew.
It was an emergency.
People had been shot.
There were SWAT teams (this, because a friend of hers who was in French class texted her. Petra was in music theory. The French class, on an upper floor of the north side of the high school building, had a bird's eye view of, first, dozens of police cars descending upon the building in question, then 10 ambulances, and, yes, the SWAT teams, including snipers on the roofs of the buildings across the street).
They were in lockdown. They were not to leave the classroom they were in when the incident started (for the high school, this decision came shortly after 11 AM. The shootings had begun around 10:30.).
They were not supposed to watch tv or go online for information.
But she was fine.
When we got off the phone, it started ringing again... it was S. Where was I? Come home now (by which she meant, her shop, which is about 2 blocks from the high school). I had a lunch appointment with a congregant about 10 miles away. I briefly considered keeping it, then laughed at the state of denial that can come so quickly in an emergency. I decided to cancel the appointment and go to the shop to await Petra's dismissal.
All afternoon we remained glued to the computer as first the local news outlet, and then, soon, national news outlets, picked up the story. There were some dead, but no one wanted to say how many. I heard 4 dead. I heard 12 dead. I assumed the truth was somewhere in the middle; I was wrong. There were 14 dead, including the tortured soul who perpetrated the crime. He had barricaded the back door to this place where immigrants and refugees go to learn English, to take citizenship classes, to integrate themselves into US society. He had then walked around the building in the rain, gone in the front door, and begun shooting.
Here is the piece of news reportage that has haunted me. The survivors-- those who were led by their teachers to hide in a downstairs boiler room and in a re-purposed dumbwaiter-- they heard shots-- Pop, pop, pop!, as one said. But they heard no screaming. Only stunned silence as the victims were gunned down, one by one.
2 Muslim women, one from Iraq, one from Pakistan.
A married couple from Haiti, who left behind two children, ages 6 and 12.
A visiting Chinese research scholar at our local, excellent university. She was my age, 47.
A native daughter of our area: mother of 10, grandmother of 17, who taught English as a second language. (S. remembers her as a young mother driving her great family around in a VW minibus.)
A 39-year-old Vietnamese woman who died in her husband's arms. He survived.
A 54-year-old Chinese immigrant who was the heart and soul of her neighborhood, known for her kind ways and her meticulous white duplex.
Another native Chinese woman who died just before her first wedding anniversary. She was 35.
A pillar of the Ukranian community who wanted to help other immigrants, and so had become a part-time caseworker at the Civic Association.
An emigrant from the Philippines who left behind a husband and 23-year-old adopted daughter.
A 22 -year-old whose biography, in its entirety, reads, from China.
A visiting Brazilian mathematician.
And the shooter.
Throughout the afternoon we watched a live blog from the local newspaper, which reported, at different times, that the police were pursuing the shooter over a nearby bridge, that the shooter had escaped down a main boulevard, and was now missing,that the shooter was heading towards the high school. (Petra tells me there were SWAT folks in her cafeteria at one point).
At 3:15 Petra called me. The lockdown was over. We figured out where to meet.
By which I mean, a nice musical boy-- let's call him Trumpet Player-- offered to walk Petra to meet me. She and Trumpet Player set out from their position, and I set out from mine. We had to go several blocks north in order to get around police barricades around about two city blocks. (The emergency responders would be at the building all night, going over the crime scene, working amidst the horror of the dead, doing their jobs.)
I crossed the river, walking over a beautiful art deco bridge, while traffic snarled and anxious drivers laid on their horns. It was windy; my coat blew around me. And... there was Petra, sauntering along with Trumpet Player. I was diagonally across an enormous intersection from them. Trumpet Player and she waved a friendly goodbye, and he stood his ground while she crossed, first north and then east, to reach me. I put out my arms: I had her.
Petra and buddies during the lockdown.